Slim, lanky Luke Weaver, whom teammates urge to eat something and “put a little meat on,” had a plan to prove he was trying. But first, he had to go hungry.
This past winter, on the Cardinals’ annual cruise ship trip with fans, Weaver orchestrated a run at a record that has stood, according to legend, for more than 15 years. The kitchen will keep bringing lobster tails until they run out, and the most any Cardinal has eaten in a sitting is around 13. Weaver cooked up a plan. He skipped meals, cleared space and walked the waiter through his plan — no starch, no veggies, just tails. And they even had a hand signal.
When the tails arrived, four to a plate, Weaver sliced the meat thin.
“I wasn’t going to allow the jaw to get overworked,” Weaver explained. “I wanted to give the people a show. I could see in their eyes they wanted to see something big happen. With the manager being there and some other close peers it was a great opportunity to show that I am trying to put on weight. I am. What better way than setting a record for lobster tails?”
As the Cardinals return to Busch Stadium from a 2-4 road trip and detour through Sunday’s MLB Little League Classic at Williamsport, Pa., they do so, like Weaver, hungry and wanting something big to happen.
As they’ve orbited .500 for most of the season, the one fixed star of their success was their starting rotation. Even as they open a series against San Diego, the Cardinals’ 4.00 ERA from starters ranks sixth in baseball, fourth in the National League. Yet, this tightly wound group that the Cardinals have counted on is starting to fray. Adam Wainwright (elbow) is on the disabled list, and Mike Leake has insisted he’s healthy despite a drift in his sinker and a plunge in his performance. The righthander hasn’t got an out in the seventh inning in a month, and his ERA is 9.26 in his past five starts.
Outside of Lance Lynn’s three quality starts, the four other starters have a 6.54 ERA this month and have allowed 1.69 walks and hits per inning (WHIP). That’s a rate of 15 over a nine-inning game. Lynn can steady the trend with his start Tuesday against San Diego, and Weaver follows Wednesday.
He’s not just a substitute. They need him to dish.
“I think he’s going to have a great career,” Wainwright said the night before he left the team to learn about the impingement in his right elbow. “He’s going to carry the torch.”
Weaver, who turned 24 on Monday, finished the first plate of four lobster tails without trouble. He caught the waiter’s eye, flashed the intentional-walk sign, and a plate of four more tails arrived. From another table, he saw the manager spying the spectacle.
The Cardinals see similarities in Weaver and Leake, starting with their slight frames and continuing with the trouble each has maintaining weight. At 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, Weaver has more frame to fill than Leake. He also has more velocity to tap. Since his debut a year ago, Weaver spun major-league lessons into minor-league success. He was 10-2 with a 2.55 ERA in 15 starts for Class AAA Memphis, and a Baseball America poll of Pacific Coast League managers and coaches named Weaver the league’s top pitching prospect. Part of the success was knowing when and how much to let the fastball go.
In the majors this season, Weaver has averaged 93.1 mph on his fastball, up from 91.9 mph a year ago, and he’s shown a willingness to throw 96 mph and near 98 mph.
“It’s deep down in there,” Weaver said. “On a good day, it might come out.”
“I think you’re going to see an increase in his repertoire,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s already got a good changeup. I think he’s going to manipulate a couple offspeed pitches. … If he’s going to stay in games deep, he’s going to have to get balls on the ground, balls in play, and let the defense work. He’s got strikeout stuff. I think it’s really learning, ‘I can blow the guy away and it might take six pitches. I’d rather get him in two.’”
• CARDS CHAT: Read Hall of Famer Rick Hummel's Q-&-A
• CARDS TALK: Fans sound off about rotation issues
The lobster record, according to Weaver, was set by fellow Florida State alum and Cardinals prospect J.D. Drew. The 13 tails is a rough estimate, because tales vary. Weaver finished off his second plate of four and gave the sign for another round. His jaw felt fine, but the going was slower. The record, he said, “seemed impossible.” The planning got him through the first few plates, and now all he had was guts.
After a taste of the majors a year ago, Weaver returned to Memphis for this season and took advantage of an offspeed pitch hitters at that level would chase. During a start for the Cardinals this summer, that pitch was ignored. Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt ignored a pitch on the edge that Weaver called a “big-league take.” The lesson was the righthander had to come back over the plate, find a way to get meek contact in the strike zone.
His next start, on Aug. 2, Weaver did with 6 1/3 strong innings and eight strikeouts against Milwaukee, a lineup that, granted, doesn’t have a Goldschmidt. Weaver toyed with his fastball from 87 mph to 94 mph, and he got eight swings and misses to go with four on his changeup. That appearance, a win, set him for a return a few weeks later when the Cardinals had a need in the bullpen and they decided he might not have any more need of Class AAA.
• GAME-BY-GAME: Luke Weaver with Cards in 2017
“When you’re a talented player at some point you’ve proving everything you can prove at Triple-A and then you’re ready for that next challenge,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “So when you’re sort of managing roles and player opportunity ... I don’t think having Weaver go to Memphis in 2018 would be logical.”
But first, 2017.
The Cardinals must confront Leake’s declining production, though the righthander stated adamantly Sunday night that he would be “against” skipping a start. Wainwright is likely to miss as much as three weeks. Either way, Weaver could take hold of a rotation spot from here to the end, setting him for the 2018 Mozeliak mentioned.
Alex Reyes is on the mend for next spring. Jack Flaherty is knocking this fall. But it’s Weaver who has a hold on the role.
The kitchen ran out of lobster tails as Weaver approached the record, so other cruisers started providing from their own plate. A tail here. A tail there. And then he finished No. 13. He felt that was good enough for the record, or “at least second.” He took a breath, let his innards settle, and realized it was a throw day. About 20 minutes later he and his wife, Olivia, were outside on a basketball court, playing catch.
He hasn’t had lobster since.
“I might look the other way, but I’m not afraid of it,” Weaver said. “If it’s there, after the game, just sitting there, maybe we’ll reminisce and have a moment together. Maybe. Once. For old times’ sake.”